CBC, Stop Telling People With Mental Illness They Don't Need Medication

06/10/2014 08:31 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:22 EDT

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation should consider the potential fallout from its June 7th Sunday Edition in which radio host Michael Enright enthusiastically endorsed the perspectives on mental illness of his guest, journalist Robert Whitaker. Both the on-air interview and CBC's follow-up article can easily persuade people with severe mental illnesses to stop taking anti-psychotic medications.

Perhaps fears of liability led interviewer Michael Enright and Mr Whitaker to acknowledge parenthetically that some people might benefit from medications although this benefit is incomprehensible given the program's promotion of the idea that all mental illnesses are actually just psychological problems.

The CBC failed to apply due journalistic diligence in its acceptance of Mr. Whitaker's assertions in its follow-up article. Whitaker's most persuasive argument is that Dr. Thomas Insel, the Director of the highly respected US National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), agrees with him. The article on the CBC's website states, "Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health in the U.S., has weighed in on antipsychotic drugs and reached a conclusion that echoes Whitaker's: That antipsychotic drugs impede long-term recovery rates."

Here's a link to the blog by Dr. Thomas Insel from which Whitaker selected a quotation that misrepresents the larger message.

It's hard to believe that Mr. Enright and Mr. Wodskou, the author of the on-line article, have read the blog and not noticed that Dr. Insel writes, "For some people, remaining on medication long-term might impede a full return to wellness. For others, discontinuing medication can be disastrous."

Dr. Insel makes his position unambiguous when he writes, "Clearly, some individuals need to be on medication continually to avoid relapse."

Psychotic disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder pose special dangers to the unfortunate people who develop them. Most people have a brain-based inability to understand, when they are fully psychotic, that there is something wrong with them. They have no reason to seek nor agree to treatments that they need.

Since Canada, like the U.S., has almost no science based public education about psychotic disorders, people with these illnesses are especially vulnerable to messages that they don't need medications and are better off avoiding them. As well, both countries lack adequate psycho-education programs for people with these illnesses. When people don't have a solid understanding of their illnesses, they are much more likely to be influenced by alternative explanations for their difficulties. These alternative explanations have a special appeal when they are increasingly offered by the mental health systems themselves both in Canada and the U.S.

Ideas like those of Mr. Whitaker already play a significant role in mental health policy in the U.S.. His Mad In America site is a haven for any person who ever received medication or treatment that they didn't need. His many followers don't concern themselves with the many people who actually do need science-based treatment.

When Mr Whitaker invokes the name and stature of Dr. Thomas Insel, he brings unwarranted credibility to his own poorly formed theories; he asserts that severe mental illnesses, or as he calls them, "mental health crises" are part of the human condition and wants the public to believe that they either naturally fade away through habits of healthy living (e.g., good diet and exercise) or can be resolved through talk therapy. It's especially ironic to hear Mr. Whitaker turn to Thomas Insel for validation because he begins the program bemoaning the increased medicalization of psychiatry in the 1990's. Dr. Insel is a neuroscientist who often speaks and writes, as do his colleagues, of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as being disorders of neural circuitry.

Dr. Insel makes himself, his ideas, and the work of the NIMH surprisingly available to the public. His frequent blogs are written for the lay public so that we can follow ongoing research.

I suggest that people watch Dr. Insel's TED talk to better understand why he considers increased brain research to be the best path forward in helping treat and eventually cure mental illnesses. Any families thinking, after hearing Mr. Whitaker, that they have been misguided in believing psychiatric assessments indicating their family member has a brain disorder should be sure to listen to the entire 14 minutes.

Of course, what would be even better for the education of the Canadian public about the state of knowledge about severe mental illnesses would be to have the CBC invite Dr. Insel to be interviewed. Hopefully, this can happen soon, before even more people stop taking the medications, problematic as they can be, that have restored their sanity.